A hate crime is a crime motivated, at least in part, by an offender’s bias against the victim’s race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or disability status. The term “hate crime” was popularized in the 1980s to refer to violent crimes motivated by racism, particularly those perpetrated by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the skinheads.
Legislators across the country have passed various laws aimed at eliminating bias-motivated crime, both federally and on the local level. Some of these laws focus on sentencing enhancements-imposing more severe penalties, such as longer jail time, for crimes committed because of a particular bias-while others, particularly on the federal level, are focused on classifying and defining hate crimes.
Statistics on hate crimes can be difficult to gather due to misclassification or underreporting, but a U.S. Department of Justice report released in March 2013 evaluated data collected by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) between 2003 and 2011. The report found that the percentage of hate crimes motivated by religious bias had doubled from 10 percent during the period 2003-06 to 21 percent during 2007-11. The percentage of hate crimes motivated by racial bias had dropped during the same time frame, from 63 percent to 54 percent. Racial bias, however, remains the most common cause of hate crimes.
In 2012, the most recent year for which the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has such statistics, there were 5,796 incidents of hate crime involving 6,718 offenses and 7,164 victims nationwide. Almost half of the victims were targeted because of the offender’s racial bias, while about 20 percent were targeted because of bias against sexual orientation; another 20 percent were victimized due to bias against a religious belief.
In 2009, President Barack Obama (D) signed the Matthew Shepard and James E. Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act-named after two victims of notable hate crimes-which expanded previous definitions of hate crime. Opponents of hate crime laws, however, contend that such laws threaten First Amendment rights without securing justice for victims. Indeed, while almost everyone agrees that bias-motivated crimes should be punished, there is disagreement as to whether such crimes should be treated more harshly than other crimes.
Are hate crime laws necessary? Are they effective?
Supporters of hate crime legislation tend to be politically liberal and to view crimes motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice as especially heinous and damaging to democracy. Hate crimes cause greater psychological damage, they argue, both to individual victims and to the communities to which they belong. Hate crime laws, they contend, discourage people from acting on hateful prejudice, protect marginalized groups from victimization, and send a strong message that bias and discrimination are wrong.
Opponents of hate crime legislation tend to be more politically conservative and worry about infringements on free speech, equality before the law, and the logical extension of criminalizing thoughts. People should be punished for their illegal actions, they argue, not their beliefs. Hate crime legislation, they contend, is not only unconstitutional, it is also redundant in light of existing U.S. law. Some opponents resist such legislation on the grounds that hatred, prejudice, and bigotry are best attacked from an educational and cultural approach than through the criminal justice system.
History of Hate Crime Law
Racial prejudice was endemic in the United States for much of its existence. It was institutionalized first by the practice of slavery, which began in the 17th century, and later by segregation laws, which many states passed in the 19th century that banned African Americans from voting, attending certain schools, and using public accommodations. Blacks who sought equal treatment or who interacted with whites often faced a violent response, such as lynching.
Other groups also faced discrimination and violence, including Native Americans and immigrants. Irish immigrants were attacked in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities, and Chinese immigrants were assaulted and killed in numerous riots in the west.
The first legislation to address bias-motivated crime in the United States came in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-65), during the period known as Reconstruction. Soon after the war ended in 1865, southern states began passing laws limiting the rights of newly freed slaves. Additionally, African Americans who tried to vote or attend school often faced violence and intimidation. In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act to ensure the basic rights of African Americans, and in 1870 and 1871 passed three more laws to safeguard their right to vote. The Enforcement Acts, as they were known, targeted white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), empowering the federal government to intervene if states failed to protect citizens and suppress racially motivated violence. These laws, however, included vague language that limited their effectiveness.
Debate over Best Ways to Address Hate Crimes Likely to Continue
Recent discussion over hate crime laws has focused largely on the expanding categories of protected groups. Some observers worry that as hate crime definitions grow broader, the lines increasingly blur between hate crime and general crime. Inclusion of gender and gender identity as protected categories, for example, has driven some critics to wonder whether all crimes committed against women could be considered hate crimes. Similarly, some have criticized states’ decisions to expand hate crime protection to people who are homeless.
The future of the hate crime law controversy will likely see each side debating the best ways to protect American democracy, civil rights, and personal freedom.
Allison, Tom, and Raphael Schweber-Koren. “Fox’s Hennenberg Repeats Right-Wing Myth That Hate Crimes Bill Could Gag Ministers.” Media Matters for America, April 29, 2009, www.mediamatters.org.
“Are Hate Crime Laws Necessary?” National Public Radio, April 10, 2012, www.npr.org.
Bronski, Michael, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico. “Hate Crime Laws Don’t Prevent Violence Against LGBT People.” The Nation, October 2, 2013, www.thenation.com.
Feldman, Noah. “Is Cutting Off a Beard a Hate Crime?” Bloomberg News, September 9, 2012, www.bloomberg.com.
Henderson, Wade. “The Fairness of Hate Crime Laws; Why We Need Bias Laws” New York Times, Room for Debate, March 7, 2012, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate.
Knight, Robert H. “‘Hate Crimes’ Laws: An Assault on Freedom.” Family Policy Network, September 28, 2005, www.familypolicy.net.